With The Art of Collecting about to debut at the London gallery, Maddie and I decided to visit the Sir John Soane Museum on the edge of Licoln’s Inn Fields. As perhaps the most singular monument to a collector’s vision in this wonderful city, we felt it made an appropriate field trip!
Nothing can fully convey quite how unique the experience of visiting this collection is, almost like walking into a well-lit cave in which has been accumulated every type of art object imaginable. Every wall is covered in sculptures and casts, every cupboard opens onto a trove of paintings, one is surrounded by a dense web of artefacts in every direction. Knowing that the museum will be cramped still doesn’t fully prepare the visitor, the first five minutes upon entering largely involves one frantically watching their feet and arms in fear of knocking an urn off a plinth or taking the outstretched arm off a classical statue. Only ninety people are allowed in the house at any given moment, and historically the house is well known for its queues, although a new requirement to book (the tickets are still free) seems to have been a positive development. I’d highly recommend anyone reading this goes and visits, its truly unique.
John Soane was a key figure in the cultural landscape of early nineteenth-century Britain. A self-made architect (the son of a bricklayer), Soane would rise to become the Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy. During his tenure his house would become a locus for young painters and architects, who would be invited to sketch and draw inspiration from its huge range of objects, arranged today in the same way that they were 200 years ago. Although his grand Bank of England was rebuilt, a loss described by Pevsner as ‘the greatest architectural crime, in the City of London, of the Twentieth Century’, Soane has still left his mark on architectural history. His most important survival, and his greatest legacy to the art world, is the Dulwich picture gallery. It was during this project that Soane pioneered both the interlinking of the whole gallery, and its illumination with skylights – two features at the centre of gallery design to this day. Gallery spaces from the Met to Gladwell’s Rutland owe him a debt to this day! Phillip Johnson, the first director of architecture at MOMA, describes his impact in the best, and most succinct way: ‘Sir John Soane taught us how to display paintings’.
Soane bequeathed his collection, gathered through Blogdecades of grand tours and gifts, to the nation in 1833, through a special act of parliament. There is some debate as to why this was done. If one is being generous, it was so that the great academician could continue to contribute to the cultural life of the nation. Less charitably, it also offered Soane a way to disinherit his estranged son! Whatever his reason, the stipulation that the collection not be split up or changed is the reason we have been handed down this time capsule from the early nineteenth-century. Preserved exactly as Soane originally laid it out and decorated it.
As Maddie and I were leaving we realised that we had spent the entire visit discussing what Soane must have been like as a person, rather than any individual works in the collection itself. Normally a museum advertises its artworks and its prestige pieces, but this is not the case with the Soane; you go to see the collection, rather than the individual pieces. The Soane is much more than its constituent parts, individual works improving the quality of those around it like the edits in a film, creating a larger narrative. The Sir John Museum is testament to the power of the collector-as-creator, a monument (perhaps more accurately a mausoleum) to its creator as much as its art. Clearly Soane’s mission to leave his collector’s mark was complete, his taste and his eye have been memorialised, and while the visitor might not find the museum beautiful, they cannot fail to be impressed – I know that I certainly was.